Why the Near Collision of Two Self-Driving Cars Is Good News

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2015-06-28 Print this article Print
Self-Driving Cars

The elevator attendant, who was nearly old enough to be a Civil War veteran, would dutifully close the elevator door, then he'd rotate a massive controller that then caused the car to lift. At the top, he'd pull open the door so I could leave. "Have a good day, Mr. Rash," he'd always say, "Tell your Mom hello."

Years later he was still there, but the elevator had been renovated. The attendant would press a button, the car would go to the top floor, and the door would open, but I'd still exchange pleasantries. Not long after that, the attendant retired and the elevator ran itself.

There are, of course, differences between self-driving cars and self-driving elevators, but not as many as you'd think. Right now we're at the stage where there's a human at the controls, but doesn't do much, kind of like the old gentleman who pressed the elevator buttons. In both cases, they're there to make people feel better.

But what will probably make people feel much better than that is if they don't have to confront the crazed lobbyists and lawyers in the traffic around Washington. With that in mind, Virginia Tech, the Virginia Department of Transportation, Nokia and others will begin testing autonomous cars on Virginia highways in the chaos of the traffic here.

Will self-driving cars be able to handle the homicidal drivers around Washington? Perhaps they will if enough of those cars are seen on the highways behaving themselves, staying out of accident and improving the flow of traffic.

But I don't think that the predictions by some will come true that eventually all driving will be automated. There are times when there's simply not a way to replace the driver or when the driver will want to be replaced.

I still remember vividly the epiphany that came while I drove a Lotus Elan along the twisting series of switch-backs that is U.S. Route 501 north of Lynchburg, Va. until I reached the amazing vistas of the Blue Ridge Parkway. That little green car came alive in my hands in ways that no touchscreen or digital controller ever could.

I remember how the sound of the engine filled my senses along with the aroma of the pine forests as one mountain cove after another opened before me. Then reaching the Parkway I cruised along with nothing but muted sounds as the glory of the Blue Ridge Mountains unfolded.

This is what driving should be. What we do on the highways around Washington or other cities isn't really driving, it's transportation. And like other forms of transportation that are giving way to automated controls, it should be treated as such.


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